Music videos in Nigeria don’t know what to do with women

Media images provide insight into a society’s culture, and music videos are one medium through which its values and ideals are presented. However, in an era where women, and a number of men, are working tirelessly to level the playing field and present women as wholesome beings, music videos as an art form in Nigeria—given its wide reach and influence—lags behind.

From artists with misguided lyrics, to directors and producers with numerous camera shots, angles, and effects, it seems that not many people really know what to do with women, save hypersexualising them or making them the docile object of a man’s love interest. A report by Erika VanDyke on Race, Body, and Sexuality in Music Videos says “The implication of the portrayal of women as one dimensional, sexualised characters lacking agency, with little to offer besides their bodies, is that female characters are valued only for their physical appearance and ability to entertain and please the men in the videos,” a culture which translates to the real-world.

Black bodies continue to function little more than props in music videos, set up as wall or window dressing while the boys perform, sometimes surrounded by other men who are somehow recognised even if you don’t immediately know who they are. “Women’s bodies are often dismembered and treated as separate parts, perpetuating the concept that a woman’s body is not connected to her mind and emotions,” states the sociologist, Erving Goffman in his book, Gender Advertisements. However, international artists like Beyonce have consistently shown that working with a widely diverse set of black women in a manner that evokes the feeling that they contribute more than parts of their bodies is entirely possible, so why are Nigerian artists slow to adapt newer, socially diverse methods, considering how quickly Western ideals are assimilated in society?

In the past, there were limited choices available for women breaking into the entertainment world, especially if they were not mainstream celebrities, but as technology evolves and conversations arise on how women are perceived in the Nigerian society, creators of music videos, especially those in which men control the narrative, are yet to grasp the huge responsibility set out for them even as the world tunes into Nigerian music exports for a glimpse into our world, culture and realities.

Film, rhetoric, television, newspaper, magazines, and more have all performed as tools, to sexualise and devalue the bodies of black women, but social media and internet-based platforms are increasingly becoming the most accessible medium with an extremely wide distribution. Through these, it is extremely common to watch black women transformed into inanimate objects—infused with whatever may be trending in popular culture—through their clothing, dancing, actions, and sometimes speech. While other elements such as religion, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, class, age, colourism, gender, remain largely unexplored, the music videos in the Nigerian popular culture further push the agenda of keeping women in a box laden with already harmful stereotypes. Jhally (2007) explains that “these ways of filming reduce women to one part of their bodies and only to the sexual part of their multifaceted characters.”

Even those videos in which a female artiste is the subject is not left out. For the most part, the depiction of black women by other black women is usually a celebration and a claim of ownership of their female sexuality, but some still enlist other women to pander to an imaginary male audience such as in Tiwa’s Vibe where she sings, If you want to touch my body/You gat to spend the money, reinforcing the entitlement of a man’s money to a woman’s body. And most heterosexual men in Nigeria, through watching incomplete depictions of women, come to expect the same response in their interactions with the opposite sex. But in reality the response is not always the same.

The accompanying lyrics, If I see you for road/you must tell me your name to the visuals of Kcee in his equally stereotyped music video Boo featuring Tekno, in reality, quickly becomes a case of street harassment. Davido’s 2013 hit See Gobe is a never ending narrative on the society’s fixation with a woman’s posterior. His lyrics, When you wiggle and waver/You must be intentional and Baby I can tell/Your every action is a plot to/Get down with this bobo/Cos i know you feeling the boy are telling on the way women’s actions are seen as an invitation, and unwarranted intrusions into her personal space supposedly “what they have been asking for”. Recurrent themes find themselves even in 2baba (formerly Tuface)’s recent video Amaka and Mc Galaxy’s Fine Girl.

There are some improvements, however. Wandecoal’s collaboration with Juls as producer on his single So Mi So, showed a better representation with dark-skinned women, the women who played the saxophone, guitar and the Yoruba talking drum, and the woman who had a more powerful glare as opposed to a flirty one.

Art imitates life and life, art. Through entertainment, actions which should be condemned are normalised. Conversations on bodily autonomy of women are consequently heavily resisted not because there are logical reasons, but because these ways of perception have become heavily ingrained in the cultures from which they emanate, and return to.

Nigerian Afropop music is having its moment in the sun with artistes like Wizkid, Yemi Alade, and Davido selling out venues and clocking numbers on streaming services. With a sense of pride and accomplishment, the majority of us are often captivated by cool moves, collaborations and flickering images on our screens. Teenagers most especially do not think about the content of the music video beyond what is presented and these rhetorics often pass unchecked into the minds of the consumer.

But as the Bechdel test — created by Alison Bechdel in her 1985 comic, “Dykes to Watch Out For” — addressed the biased portrayal of women in films, and “the DuVernay test” coined after Ava DuVernay, director of A Wrinkle In Time, may become a thing to measure a film’s diversity, an Afropop test measuring components such as; “does a female love interest have a life other than hanging out on the bed with friends?”, “why do we have just thin/hour-glass light-skinned women?”, and “should his face really be in between twerking booties?” should be standard practice.